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How Do You Praise?

Updated: Jan 31, 2020

Featured on the Hong Kong Economic Journal (September 28, 2017)

"I was at a dinner with my family and some family friends one evening and my son was interacting with an older auntie at the table. He was smiling and responding to her questions and it appeared that she was quite enamored by him. Then she turns to me and ever so quietly said “he’s adorable, such a good boy – but don’t let him hear me say that.” I’ve been told that this practice is quite a traditional Chinese practice where people believe that we can ‘spoil our young ones with praise’ and that speaking positive things will somehow jinx a person to end up being the opposite.

And on the other end of the spectrum, I’ve seen adults and parents who lather on the praise on their children, or other people’s children. “Oh you’re so wonderful!” or “you’re the best student on earth” may be how they praise and it may be with the intention of building self-esteem and confidence.

So what is the right way? I don’t think there is a definitive answer but there are some things I think work well.

I am personally of the belief that there is power in words. Our words carry weight – otherwise they wouldn’t mean so much or hurt so much when used. I still remember hurtful things said to me decades ago that have left a wound but similarly, I also remember encouraging things said to me that have lifted me up. Words carry power and we have the choice of how to use that power.

Some have explained to me that they put their children down so that they will learn to be stronger and fight what is being said about them and end up being better. So if the phrase “you’re so lazy” is being used, then the hope is that it would aggravate the child enough to not want to be lazy, to get their at together and then end up being hard working. But that’s making a couple of assumptions – that the child hadn’t tried before, will be motivated by negativity, that the child cares enough to do something about it and that it doesn’t ruin the relationship. All of which I’m not sure about.

Rather, I am of the belief that every child wants to succeed and do well. So rather than demeaning them and pushing them down hoping that they will push up, I’d rather use my words to tell them what potential I see in them and empower them to reach that goal.

But even in doing so, there are some ways of praising effectively.

  1. Be specific – instead of “that’s such a nice painting”, say “I really like the colours you chose for this painting”. Being specific means more to the person receiving the praise.

  2. Be honest – as the saying goes “say what you mean and mean what you say” so being generous with praise doesn’t mean doling out praise when you don’t mean it. Say it when you do mean it.

  3. Help them internalize the praise – if your child does something well, you want them to internalize it so that it becomes part of their character, and not just an action. So if your child helps you with a chore, you could say “thank you for helping me” but saying “thank you for being so helpful” is a better option. One points to the action as merely an action, but the latter makes the action part of the person’s character and research has shown that people who have internalized the praise will more likely repeat the action.

We live in a competitive, high-stress world and our children are subject to it too. And children I’ve met are more likely to doubt themselves than be over-confident so let’s call out the gold in them, praise them well and help them soar! "


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